“Victorian technology revisited in the 21st century due to its low cost & zero greenhouse gas emissions."
Brian E. W. Dowse P.Eng. (Retired)*
Feb 1, 2017
I am a retired Civil Engineer who has worked on hundreds of projects in North America and overseas. I have lived for a year or longer in 6 different countries. I have always been intrigued with past technologies developed in previous times and civilizations in such places as Europe, Egypt, Middle East, China, Peru, India and other countries. In retirement, I have mentored a number of international engineers who are working to establish themselves in Canada. Alberta has suffered from the downturn in the economy due to the recent reduction in the price of oil. Coincidentally the question of climate change and reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases is forcing engineers to look at new and different technologies. This made me focus on some older technologies that could possibly be reincarnated in conjunction with 21st-century engineering. This document covers some thoughts on how Hydraulic Rams could be modified and I am mentoring some of the associates of SEEDA Inc. to take this Victorian technology and apply it to engineering projects in the second millennium.
What is a hydraulic ram?
I grew up in the British Isles and in the 1950s where our family lived in a rural house that was built in late 1700s. It had a water supply system that pumped water from a small river about 700 m. away and up about 50 m. to a large tank in the spacious attic of the house. From the tank, gravity distributed it through pipes to the kitchen, baths, basins and toilets. The system was powered by a hydraulic ram that used no electricity, petroleum fuel or external energy and pumped away steadily day and night providing sufficient river water for a family of five and a small adjacent farmyard. Water for cooking and family consumption came from a hand pump connected to a well near the house.
As a “fledgling” teenage engineer” it was my job to maintain the hydraulic ram and if it ever stopped working, I would get on my bicycle and ride to a small hut with a locked door beside the river. In a few minutes, I would have adjusted a few valves and have it working again and be back home within 10 minutes.
I am not certain when this hydraulic ram was installed, but I am sure it was at least 100 years old in the 1950s – it consisted of cast iron, steel, brass, and copper components and made a satisfying click-click sound when it was working properly.
When our family moved into this house, it was already connected to the national electrical grid providing 220 volt AC electricity. However, there was still the remnants of a wind powered electrical generator mounted on top of a 10 m high mast which apparently was used to charge lead batteries that powered a 12 volt DC lighting network in the house. The previous occupants of the house must have been leading proponents of “modern” technology and in the 21st century would be lauded for their “renewable” approach to energy where their water and electricity were provided with no greenhouse gas emissions!
How does a hydraulic ram work?
Hydraulic Rams have only 2 moving parts. A larger pipe has water flowing through it and causes a valve to close every 5 or so seconds, and the momentum of the larger volume of water forces a smaller amount of water into a pressurized closed chamber until another valve to a smaller pipe opens, and the pressurized water flows into the smaller pipe. Typically these valves open and close every 4 or 5 seconds and thus create a steady flow uphill – height and distance of the water flow are dependent on the efficiency of the design and the frictional losses in the exit pipe.
I have not seen an operating hydraulic ram since 1956, and the technology seems to have been forgotten or overlooked in the surge for “high technology solutions” in recent years. This is possibly a case where ‘”old technology” can be taken out of the “cupboard” and reconsidered for new applications. These could possibly include water supply, mini-hydro projects and possibly small pumped storage of energy.
Another advantage of the hydraulic ram energy is that it does not require the creation of a reservoir or impede the movement of fish in the river channel. This old technology can possibly be combined with some new technologies to meet the requirements of reducing climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
What is the future for the hydraulic ram?
The simplicity of the Hydraulic Ram makes it very suitable for use in remote regions. There is the possibility that larger units could be developed which would allow it to provide the water supply for small communities at significantly lower capital and operating costs and no requirement for an external energy source. It may also be possible to combine the technology with recent advances in construction and drilling technologies. SEEDA engineers are currently working on a number of applications in Western Canada.
*Brian Dowse is a retired Consulting Civil Engineer who was educated in Europe and the USA and has been based in Canada for most of his 40-year consulting career. He has been involved in a wide variety of engineering projects in North America, Europe and other regions of the world. In retirement, he has lived in Calgary and is currently mentoring engineers associated with SEEDA Inc. as the company is being established and develops a Client base.